Blog: When disasters happen, people make all the difference

Japan is one of the most earthquake-affected countries in the world. And people with disabilities are some of the most vulnerable victims of earthquakes because we can’t run away, hear or see.

When the Great Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake occurred in 1995, about 3.5 per cent of people killed were people with disabilities, especially those who were living independently. Among those who survived, the key was their connection with people in the community.

I heard of one guy living with cerebral palsy, who was crushed under his roof. However, two university students who lived nearby remembered about him and came to rescue him. They knew each other because they greeted each other on the street. He was living by himself so if it was not for those students, he would have been killed.

Pinned under the roof, anyone would have struggled to get out; but he was not able to move his body, so it was impossible for him to save himself. After he arrived at the hospital, the staff thought he was drunk because of his speech impediment. So he was put at the end of the line and could not get a medical check for two days, but he still survived. A lesson from this episode is that, institutions such as hospitals have less flexibility in emergency situations while people may have more capacity to support people who need help.

When the Great East Japan Earthquake happened in 2011, followed by a tsunami, people with disability were once again devastatingly damaged. They were twice as likely to be killed than people without a disability. The municipality which was in charge of providing support for people with disabilities was washed away also. Thus, it was impossible to receive the support they usually receive.

Again, the connection with people around them became very important for their survival. A lady with ALS, who uses a mechanical ventilator and needs 24/7 care and support, was affected by the disaster. Luckily, despite the care system from the municipality going down, her care supporters lived close. They provided support and organised for her to be evacuated to another city quickly where she was able to get the care she needed.

I have a disability called Osteogenesis imperfecta, which means my bones are really easy to break. I was 14 when the Great East Japan Earthquake happened. I was in my junior high school taking a history test. The shake started gradually and became huge.

For a moment, I thought my life was ending, because I cannot run in the case of an evacuation. I felt like everyone was panicking and that they might leave me behind.

However, luckily the shake in my area was not big enough to collapse the school building and, luckily again, my father came to pick me up straight after he felt the shake. I was saved. Also, despite my fear of being left behind, my classmates were telling me that they were willing to help me out.

The lifeline for people with disabilities are the connections we have with people around us. Society encourages us to be independent, but all of our lives are dependent on our web of connections with other people. It is just a little more obvious for us.

A Japanese scholar, who has a disability himself, said that “being independent means to have many people you can rely on”. In the case of disaster what he says becomes clearer. It is important to build relationships in the community with neighbours, healthcare workers and local businesses so that if disasters happen we have people there to help us when other systems can’t. Because when disasters happen, it is people who make all the difference.

Drawing of hands holding coffee beans

Originally from Japan, Umi Asaka is an international student at the University of Otago in Dunedin studying to become a social worker.


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